A Month with Mitchell Leisen: Easy Living (1937)
Welcome to A Month with Mitchell Leisen! Each week this month I will be reviewing one of Leisen’s films. An underrated, visually oriented director whose specialties were comedies and romances, Leisen is a very "niche" director that only the most devout of film lovers seem to recognize. I am admittedly not one of them (film geek that I am), but the purpose of Mitchell Month is to rectify that. As I pointed out in my review of Swing High, Swing Low, he has a sensitivity to his plots and characters that tends to be lacking, especially in today’s cinema.
Well, today’s film certainly doesn’t need much sensitivity, because it’s Easy Living, the 1937 screwball comedy written by Preston Sturges. Bill Wren of Piddleville.com put it best:
How do you know a movie is a Preston Sturges movie? Everybody falls down, or at least they seem to. There are so many pratfalls here you could easily lose count.
I’ve seen plenty of screwball comedies, and they are not for the faint of heart: women who lie, cheat, steal, and try to break up relationships, men punching out women without a drop of remorse, pratfalls that would kill anyone else in real life, screwball comedies were definitely of their time, and required a certain touch of sophistication to balance the dizzying lunacy. Once or twice a decade we try to replicate screwball comedies, but with only intermittent success. I consider the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty a well made modern screwball comedy, with its outrageous plot contrivances and cucumber-cool leading lady cheerfully driving our leading man nuts. Unfortunately, for every Intolerable Cruelty, we get half a dozen Who’s that Girl’s.
Screwball comedies tend to be very hit or miss with me. I normally don't like the argument that one should "turn off the brain" to enjoy certain movies, but, watching Easy Living, that was really the only way I could accept the loopy script. I guess if I'm to turn off my brain, better to do it for a 30s comedy as opposed to, say, a Michael Bay film. At least screwball comedies never stooped so low as to take themselves seriously.
Easy Living tells the story of insanely wealthy (screwball comedies rarely, if ever, dealt exclusively with the middle class) stock broker JB Ball (Edward Arnold) who is fed up not only with his shiftless son Johnny (Ray Milland), but his wife's exorbitant spending habits. When she pays more than $50,000 on a sable coat, JB throws it off their penthouse balcony in a fury, where it lands on ordinary working girl Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), who is understandably flustered on how this extravagant garment literally fell into her life.
JB happens to meet Mary, explains what happened, and not only lets her keep the sable, but buys her a new hat, since her old one got squashed by the coat. This simple act of kindness and luxurious new wardrobe gets tongues a-wagging that Mary is JB’s mistress, first at Mary’s job (where she quits in anger), then at a posh but unsuccessful hotel that JB is threatening to foreclose. The hotel’s proprietor, Louis Louis (Luis Alberni, playing the token zany foreigner) gets wind of the rumor, and decides to allow Mary to live there for practically nothing, hoping that the publicity garnered by the mistress of the wealthiest man in town will bring in guests (I'm not sure how that would work, but it's best to just check logic at the door). The hotel is, of course, one of those plushly gargantuan Art Deco affairs that exist only in films from the 30s.It's bigger than the downstairs of most houses, blinding white, and has an ornate, intricate shower that is begging for a comic scene involving our two leads getting soaked (spoiler: they do). Mary, befuddled but delighted, goes along with this. Hey, wouldn't you stay at an extravagant hotel if it were practically handed to you?
Meanwhile, Johnny has taken a job at an automat, and loses it when he tries to give Mary a free meal. The two naturally fall in love and, in true screwball fashion, Johnny doesn’t reveal who he is, and Mary doesn’t put two and two together, considering he and his father share the same last name. Basically, the plot is like the most convoluted Three’s Company episode ever: Mary deals with the unwanted celebrity of being mistaken for JB’s mistress, JB’s marriage is in jeopardy because his wife believes he’s having an affair, some ill-chosen words by Mary nearly cause another stock market crash (criminy, how powerful is this woman?!), and finally everything ties together in the end in a neat little bow.
Like I said, I’m not very good at turning off my brain when watching films; at best I can hit the dimmer switch. Maybe that’s why I run hot and cold when it comes to screwball comedies. For instance, when Mary, unemployed and behind on her rent, is pathetically trying to get change out of her piggy bank to buy dinner, all I could think was, For God's sake, pawn the damn coat and hat! Your rent and grocery troubles would be over in the twinkling of an eye! Also, I’m used to slapstick violence in these movies, but Easy Living cranks it up to 11, then 12 and 13. The opening scene alone has JB falling down the stairs, and then we see a goldfish bowl filled with water fall from a great height and shatter on a man’s head, much to his mild irritation (hell, an empty one probably would have killed him), and a chaotic brawl at the automat that Johnny unintentionally starts (the weakest scene, and it goes on for far too long).
My theory is that screwball comedies were so beloved and successful because, in a time of financial uncertainty (not to mention a world war just a few years away), audiences wanted movies that spoke not to their superego, but to their id. They wanted to see the frivolous, idle rich make fools of themselves, to see people thumb their nose and spit at authority, for people to trade punches, fall out of windows, or roll down hills and be no worse for wear. Good behavior wasn't making the Depression any easier, so why not vicariously live through characters acting through their worst impulses? Easy Living certainly delivers the goods with bombastic aplomb.
I want to take a moment to mention Jean Arthur. I’ve seen her before in three films, but I actually didn’t understand her appeal until Easy Living. I think her popularity stems from her lack of perfection. Pretty, but hardly glamorous or gorgeous, with a quirky voice and slightly gawky mannerisms, she was like an ordinary woman who woke up one day a movie star and wasn’t sure what to make of it, but decided to roll with it. I’ll give Arthur this: unlike today’s line of Manic Pixie Dream Girls, you never feel that she’s trying to be cute... she just is cute. In the piggy bank scene, she decides to smash it, but she’s rather fond of it, so she takes a tissue, blindfolds the piggy bank, and says, “Sorry, Wafford” before breaking it. If someone like Zooey Deschanael or Natalie Portman did that scene, it would have been nauseatingly twee, but somehow Arthur makes it charming and real. Arthur never believed she was a good actress, which is a shame, for she always appears utterly natural and in the moment. In one scene, she and Milland are lying side by side in bed, and she lazily takes the tulle of her evening gown, places it on her face, and blows it up and down. It never feels planned, it feels completely spontaneous and wonderfully childlike.
This is also a treat for classic film character actor spotters (such as myself). Everyone's favorite beleaguered priss Franklin Pangborn plays a smarmy salesman, while Shirley Temple's frequent nemesis Mary Nash plays JB's wife (she and Edward Arnold also played a married couple in the previous year's Come and Get it). Ray Milland is so famous for his grim roles in The Lost Weekend and Dial M for Murder, it's easy to forget that he got his start in lightweight confections such as this.
Mitchell Leisen shows he's up to the task of directing an outlandish screwball comedy, and the actors seem perfectly at ease with the goofy goings on. So what slice of escapism will he serve up next? Check in next week and find out (or not, it's up to you)!